“The best comics of 2011: Graphic novels & art comics” / The AV Club / Noel Murray / December 29, 2011

Top Three Reprints

1. Daniel Clowes, The Death-Ray (D&Q)
Previously available as an unwieldy oversized magazine, the contents of Eightball #23 are now the graphic novel they always should’ve been, packaging Daniel Clowes’ meltdown of superhero mythology under a sturdy hardcover. Broken into one- or two-page chapters—drawn in a range of styles, from simple cartoons to naturalistic sketches to full-scale, dynamic action layouts—The Death-Ray is narrated by Andy, a tense, middle-aged loner who recalls his high-school years in the late ’70s, when he was a scrawny outsider who acquired superhuman strength and a weapon capable of disintegrating its targets without leaving a trace. With a keenly developed sense of justice and no super-villains to battle, Andy and his proto-slacker sidekick began a covert terror campaign, directed at the jerks in their lives. The Death-Ray can be read as a critique of American foreign policy, or a kiss-off to superheroes, but it’s also another of Clowes’ keen dissections of teen ennui, with the details of a young man’s first cigarette and his first punk-rock album serving as more than just coming-of-age signifiers. In the devastating final two pages, Clowes returns to Andy in the present day and sucks the air out of the piece, as fireworks pop and the hero explains that the petty grudges of young adulthood never fade, but resolve themselves into a system of values, guiding the way the world is run.

3. Shigeru Mizuki, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (D&Q)
Based on Shigeru Mizuki’s memories of fighting in World War II, the 1973 graphic novel Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths combines detailed, often beautiful illustrations of small Pacific islands with characters rendered far less elaborately, setting up the climactic suicide mission of the book’s title, where men become little more than meat. A character dies roughly every 10 pages in this 368-page book, typically in ways that are more blackly comic than tragic. Soldiers get shot while sneaking off to extract a few drops of water from tree roots, or they choke while trying to carry fish in their mouths. Those are the kind of quirky details that could only come from personal experience, and they’re mixed in with page after page of soldiers dealing with hunger, illness, horniness, and the dehumanizing abuse from their superiors. It’s hard to picture the Imperial Army as the robotic fanatics of legend after reading Onward, with its mass of rounded faces all yearning for an extra spoonful of rice and one last shot at getting laid before they charge into the abyss.

Top Five Archival Collections

5. Denys Wortman, Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s And 1940s (D&Q)
Denys Wortman drew cartoons and illustrations for multiple New York magazines and newspapers between the ’20s and ’50s, but never became as well known as some of his peers, perhaps because his dense panels, sketchy lines and whimsical captions lost some charm when reduced to a quarter-page. The James Sturm and Brandon Elston-edited Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait Of The City In The 1930s and 1940s arranges hundreds of Wortman originals—saved in a shed by his son—into a tour through the city over the course of a single day. The impressions of city life over a half-century ago are invaluable, but even better, Denys Wortman’s New York features one panel per large-sized page, which does due justice to the artist’s detailed, dynamic drawings of fire escapes, busy lunch counters, jumping dance halls, and dimly lit parlors.

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